The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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47. A Retreat, With Some Screaming

The stag leaped forward, its antlers lowered. It didn’t bellow with rage, it coughed and stumbled. It swung its head wildly, but its front legs buckled as it charged. Derk braced his harpoon, but though it stuck in the stag’s shoulder, it wasn’t long enough, and he had to dive aside as the antlers swept round, to avoid being torn to shreds.

One ranger, Arin, was not so nimble. He put an arrow in the stag’s neck, but it turned its charge unexpectedly and tossed him aside. He screamed, and blood ran from his arm and ribs.

Green dove the other way, and drove a sword into the beast’s side, then had to retreat. Two more arrows appeared in the stag’s breast. A stone the size of a fist struck it right between the eyes and bounced away without any obvious effect. Ashlin had scrambled part-way up the slope, Jenna stood at the bottom getting another stone.

“Stop that nonsense,” roared Green pointing at her. She dropped the stone and backed away. One of the rangers got a loop of rope over one antler, then two men pulled the creature away from Arin and brought it to the ground. It was the work of moments to finish it.

“Right. Arin, can you walk?”

“I’ll need bound up a bit, but after that, try and bloody stop me.”

“Ash. Ash!” Jenna was shouting.

“What?” Ashlin realised he was staring at the stag, his hands clenched, his legs shaking.

“What are you just standing there for? Take Arin’s pack. We have to go.”

He kept staring, thinking. The stag was not moving, or even twitching. It was just a dead animal. There was no ferocity in it, no hate, no hunger. It had moved something like a puppet, or as though it was drunk. But there was no sense of that monster that he had seen in the eyes of the giant badger.

“Ash. Move.”

The rangers swept their torches through the webs in front of them, and cut a direct route chosen by Green, to the south and east. Spiders dropped on them occasionally, causing Jenna to shriek a few times, but they did indeed appear to be ordinary spiders, and they didn’t actually do anything aggressive, just fell off again onto the forest floor.

When they were out of the woods and in sight of their camp site, Green whistled four times and waved to the rangers who were standing guard on their supplies. Two ran over to help support the injured man, and the others seemed to be finding bandages. There was already hot water. When it was clear that no more of it would be needed for medical purposes, Ashlin made tea.

“What did I do wrong?” asked Jenna. “I was helping fight the stag, and you told me off.”

“Did I hurt your feelings?” Green growled.

Jenna was indignant now. “Never mind my feelings. We were in danger. I want to know what I did wrong so I don’t do it again and get someone killed.”

Green didn’t answer at first, then he seemed to relent a little.

“It was a good throw. But stags are always butting heads. Their skulls are thick. I didn’t need you throwing rocks past my head, which isn’t. But,” he added, “if it’s a mountain lion next time, have at it.”

 

Food was cooked, and eaten.

“What are we up against, do you think?” Ashlin asked. “What explains everything we’ve seen?”

“Spiders. Intelligent spiders.” Jenna shuddered. “But that doesn’t explain the stag, so I’m open to another explanation. Please somebody come up with one.”

“Some new kind of rabies?” suggested Arin. “But I very much want that not to be true. And that doesn’t explain how the webs moved. So yes, I favour the spiders.”

Green spat into the fire. “We’re not here to choose any old wrong explanation just because it doesn’t scare us so much. If it’s spiders, it’s spiders. If you’ve got some deadly new stag-rabies, Arin, then tough.”

“I think,” said Ashlin, “that the spiders have to have something to do with it. They spun webs all over the place, and they possibly cleared away a false path for us, but we didn’t see them do it, so that might have been something else. The stag wasn’t just sick, it was being driven or moved against its nature. Or it was drugged, confused. I don’t think spiders can do that. I don’t think they can make a platoon of soldiers start killing each other, either.”

“But we should check ourselves for spider bites,” said Derk. “I’ve heard of poisons that make people go mad and see things.”

“Anyone here going mad?” asked Green, sourly. “More than usual I mean. More than we must already be, to be here?” Nobody seemed to think so. “Well, give it time.”

“What else doesn’t fit?” asked Jenna. “That giant shit-fungus thing. You said it was unusually large.”

Green nodded.

“But I don’t see how that helps us,” she continued. “Maybe it’s not connected at all. If it is, then what does it mean? Did someone plant it there? Why? It can’t be because they like the smell.”

“We need to know more. We have some daylight left, but I still don’t know what we’re looking for,” said Ashlin. “I don’t want to risk too many lives if I don’t know what we stand to gain by it.”

“Then don’t,” said Green. “We’ll take a smaller team. Four: you, me, Jenna, one other of my lads. We go along the edge of the woods, don’t go in unless we see something you think will help explain this mess. If we do go in, we stay in sight of our way out. If we are in danger, we run.”

“What about me?” asked Derk.

“You stay here and keep Arin company. I’ll have two rangers keep us in sight. If we signal we are going into the woods, it will be up to them to decide what to do.” He addressed his men. “If we go in without giving the right signal, then assume we are walking into a trap.”

 

The edge of the forest was not a sharp, clear line. To the north of them, taller pines stood with a haze of webs in their branches. Around their feet, and for twenty or thirty yards, pine seedlings were growing. Few of them were webbed at all. There were pine cones scattered outward from the edge of the forest.

“It’s spreading,” Ashlin noted. “Something moved these cones here, and these new trees are all less than a year old. So it’s started spreading quite recently.”

He kicked at a blackish lump on the ground.

“Looks like this whole area was cleared by fire a while ago.”

“Is it the forest itself? Evil trees?” Jenna sounded sceptical. “What could trees even do to you?”

“I don’t know. Fall on you. Did any of the victims we know about get fallen on by trees?”

“Those soldiers didn’t. Nor the stag,” said Green.

They stopped for a break and looked back. In the distance, they could see two silhouettes on a rise behind them. Rangers, keeping an eye on them.

“Jenna, suppose it’s a great big badger,” Ashlin began.

“It’s not, though. How does that make any sense?”

“I know. But for the sake of argument, suppose it were. What would we be trying to find out?”

“Where it sleeps, what it has been eating, its home range, how many of them there are, that kind of thing. You know this.” Jenna still seemed unconvinced.

“Right. Green, suppose it was an enemy using the forest as cover. Let’s stop pretending you’re not a soldier. What would you be trying to find out?”

“The same: where they camp, their supplies and supply lines, their numbers.”

“So,” said Ashlin. “The same kind of questions work for more than one kind of enemy. Let’s just try and answer them first, and figure out what the enemy is afterwards.”

He was met with very doubtful looks all round.

“There are so many things wrong with that idea, that I don’t know where to start,” Jenna said.

Green didn’t have anything to add to her assessment.

The other ranger raised a finger.

“Well, suppose it eats the people it kills. That’s a start.”

“Karl, it doesn’t. It leaves them to rot. Maggots eat them.”

“Suppose it’s the maggots, then.”

“Yuck!” said Jenna. “That’s worse than spiders.”

Ashlin felt close to an idea, but then something in the trees caught his eye.

“Is that an old building in there, a farmhouse or something?”

“Maybe. Want to take a look?”

“I think we might as well. Anything might give us another clue.”

“Right, then.”

Green walked well out from the trees, waved, whistled, pointed. He waited for a whistle and wave from the distant rangers who were watching them.

“We have half an hour to look around.”

The building was old and decrepit. The trees around it were quite thickly webbed, and ropes of web extended into the windows and through the half-collapsed roof. They approached very nervously. They reached a point where they couldn’t get any closer without walking through thick web, which was crawling with spiders.

“What do you think, Ash?” Jenna’s voice was a little unsteady.

“There are a lot of webs going in there. There might be something we need to see. But ...”

“Yes. But.” She was looking very pale, and kept running her hands through her hair nervously.

“Torches,” said Green.

They lit torches, and gingerly burned their way forward. Spiders scattered away from the flames.

“I hope we aren’t destroying clues,” said Ashlin.

“I hope we are disrupting enemy strategy,” said Green.

“I hope there aren’t any giant spiders,” said Jenna, but very quietly.

They reached the doorway of the farmhouse. The door, the door frame, the floor of the building were all rotted away with fungus. The roof was held in place partly by a pine tree that had grown up through the middle of the floor. Its trunk was slimy and lumpy with fungal growths, and the webs converged on this mass, and merged with it.

“Ever seen that before?” asked Green.

“Nothing like it. Are those ... spider egg sacs?” Jenna asked, but made no move to get closer and find out.

“Let’s see,” said Ashlin. He took a sword and poked at the white lumpy mass. “No, some kind of fungus.”

“Seen enough?” Green brought his torch nearer. “Burn it?”

“Wait, I think—”

There was a piercing scream from Jenna, and the sound of her running. Ashlin looked round and saw a dark blurry shape in the corner of the room. It was at least six feet across, a black bulge in the middle, and eight jointed waving legs around it. It appeared and faded and re-formed. It advanced.

“What the shit is that?” Green held his torch out like a sword and with one swift motion threw a dagger right at the thing’s centre. It passed through and the middle section scattered apart. Then it formed again.

“Run.”

Ashlin had leaped back and struck his shoulder on the door frame, which crumbled apart. He scrambled upright and all but fell out of the doorway. Karl was already jogging after Jenna, and Ashlin followed at a full run. Green came behind, turning to see if they were pursued.

In moments they were back in the sunlight. Jenna was still running. Ashlin looked back at Green, who was watching the woods. He turned. “Nothing coming after us.” He looked at Jenna, receding rapidly. “Well, let’s catch up.”

Ashlin sneezed. His shoulder was covered in pinkish dust, which he batted off. He ran after the others, who didn’t stop until they came to the two rangers who had been observing them, and who were now standing in a state of armed readiness after seeing their mad flight from an unseen danger. By the time he reached them, he was out of breath and his head was spinning.

“Giant spider,” was all Jenna said. She kept looking over her shoulder as they walked back to their camp site.

“No,” said Green.

“What? I saw it! I had just said, I hope there’s no giant spiders, and then you started waving your torch near that tree, and there it was. It just appeared there in the corner of the room. You saw it too, right?”

“I saw it. How can a spider that big exist? How can it suddenly appear like that?” Ashlin said, puzzled, “and on such a beautiful day too.”

The others looked at him.

“It wasn’t a spider,” said Green. “It was about a thousand spiders and some sheets of web. It was a bloody great spider-puppet. I doubt if it could have hurt us. But it even scared the hell out of me.”

“Ash, what’s that on your shoulder?” Jenna reached out to brush off the pink dust.

“Don’t touch that!” said Green. “Ash, get your jacket off. And anything else with dust on it. Nobody touch him. Ash, are you all right?”

Ash weaved, slightly unsteady on his feet, as he complied. The wind felt warm and pink on his skin.

“I’m fine. Look at those webs, see how the sun shines through them and makes rainbows. It’s just like clouds.”

“Burn those clothes.”

“Ash, sit down.” Jenna sounded worried. But there was absolutely nothing to be worried about.

“I am getting so many ideas, now. We will have this solved in no time. But I’ll need a pencil, and a sack to put the rainbow badgers in. It’s a brilliant plan.”

“Ash, you’re not well.”

“Rinse him off with water. Face too. In fact, strip him off completely. Sorry Jen, we have no time to be genteel about this.”

“Oh shut up, I’ve seen him naked.”

Ashlin giggled.

“This is a waste of time. I don’t need a bath. I am completely lucid.”

“Really, you aren’t. Stay there.”

“It’s fine. I’m a little sleepy, but that’s all right, because I’m dreaming already. Saves time.”

“Back to camp. Get the supplies, forced march out of here. I want ten miles between us and those woods before nightfall.”

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